How ‘The Irishman’ Prepares for Death

Courtesy Netflix

The Irishman (in theaters now and on Netflix November 27) is the culmination of Martin Scorsese’s career as the foremost auteur of American gangster movies (Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New YorkThe Departed). No one does this genre better than Scorsese, and with a bigger-than-ever canvas (a three-and-a-half-hour runtime and a $160 million budget), the master can immerse us in American mob tableau like never before—populating the screen with characters with names like “Whispers” and “Crazy Joe” in settings like teamsters halls, Howard Johnson motels, and New York’s Copacabana Nightclub and Umberto’s Clam House.

But more than a culmination of his career, The Irishman is also a reflective commentary on that career—a latter-life confession of sorts as Scorsese, 76, grapples with his own artistic fascination with vice-ridden antiheroes. Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992, Martin Scorsese’s Irishman revises and demystifies the myths that made—and still entertain—America.

‘Forrest Gump’ of Gangster Movies

The Irishman (rated R for language and violence) is sort of like the Forrest Gump of gangster movies. It tells a specific man’s story but against the backdrop of a half-century of American history. The plot centers on real-life mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and his rise within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Bufalino crime family—he is mentored by boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Like Gump, Sheeran’s story criss-crosses the country (Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Miami) and intersects with iconic moments in the nation’s history: the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, and so on. 

Most of the film focuses on where Sheeran’s story intersects with Hoffa’s (Al Pacino). Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, the movie offers a captivating look inside organized crime, union corruption, and one of America’s most perplexing whodunits: Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?

But the film is more than just an intriguing crime story, and Scorsese’s concerns are more existential—even theological—than they are historical. Whether events unfolded in history as they do in The Irishman is less pressing to Scorsese than the question of how we live with history, reckon with our past sins, and prepare for death.

Whether events unfolded in history as they do in The Irishman is less pressing to Scorsese than the question of how we live with history, reckon with our past sins, and prepare for death.

Scariest Villain

In a movie full of dangerous villains, time is by far the scariest. You feel time in The Irishman not only because of its much-publicized de-aging CGI technology, nor because it is absurdly long (209 minutes!) but because the clock is ticking on every character. Death comes for them all, one way or another. A brilliant recurring stylistic device pauses the action to tell us how various mobsters, who show up only in passing, end up dying: “Shot three times in his driveway,” “Shot six times in a Chicago parking lot,” “Died of natural causes,” and so on. Some deaths in the film are operatic, in hyper-slow motion, and bloody. Others are mundane, bloodless, or occur offscreen. Most are somewhere in between, more of a humdrum constant than a shocking focal point. 

The foregrounding of death here is not primarily a tension-building device (like in the films of Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers), nor is it about cinematic glamor or glory. It’s rather about the reality of human mortality and the perspective death gives. If everyone dies and will eventually be forgotten, how should one live? What really matters?

The film begins and ends in a nursing home, with a haunting 1950s doo-wop song: “In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins. It situates the film—which has been called an “elegy” or “funeral”—within a melancholy, mournful register: nostalgia mixed with ache for a pause in the relentless pace of time.

The nursing-home setting reminds us of the inglorious frailty of life. Whoever we are in our prime—iconic mobster, union boss, U.S. president—we’ll all likely end up in a wheelchair, organizing our pill boxes with shaky fingers, taking our blood pressure multiple times a day, telling stories of the glories gone by, if anyone is there to listen.

Sinful and Sorrowful

In the nursing home at the end of his life, Sheeran narrates his story directly to the audience—regaling us with tales of mob hits, political corruption, jury tampering, family dysfunction, and other vices. At times it feels like he’s confessing his sins, except that he doesn’t call them sins and shows more delight than remorse in recalling them. It’s more like “storytime with Grandpa Frank” in which Grandpa is oddly detached from his own story. There is no regret in his voice; only sadness that his life will soon end, that he will probably be forgotten. 

There are hints in the film’s final act that, facing death, Sheeran might want to get right with God. In prison with his (now very old) friend Russell, the two felons share bread and juice in a clear nod to the Eucharist. Russell talks of going “to church” when Sheeran asks where he’s going. Later, Sheeran befriends a priest who asks if Sheeran feels any remorse. He says he doesn’t, that it’s “water under the bridge.” For Sheeran, decades of cold-blooded killing have numbed him. The only feeling that comes close to regret concerns his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), who wants nothing to do with him.

The priest reminds Sheeran that you can be sorry without fully feeling sorry—that repentance is a decision of the will more than an impulse of emotion. It’s a welcome distinction in our “follow your heart” age, where willed action in spite of one’s feeling is often construed as inauthenticity. But while the priest eventually leads Sheeran in a prayer of repentance—that he is “sinful and sorrowful” for what he has done—it’s unclear if Sheeran is sincerely repentant.

At the end of his life, Sheeran is weak, lonely, abandoned by those closest to him, and, most of all, afraid. In a telling scene, the elderly mobster goes to pick out his own casket and burial location. He wants to be buried above ground in a mausoleum because it feels “less final” than burial in the ground or cremation—like maybe his body could be resurrected more easily that way. 

The sadness and emptiness of his life—for all its grand underworld exploits and made-for-the-movies drama—stands as a bracing warning to the viewer. Your earthly life is a vapor, a quickly forgotten whisper. All you do in the name of your fleshly fortune and glory will fade into oblivion. But your eternal soul will live on forever—in heaven or in hell. And death, as Scorsese so rightly reminds us, is coming for us all. What are you doing to prepare yourself, and others, for that day?

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